The Zero Force Cycling Team rode into a cacophony of cheers, thundersticks and African drums as they crossed the finish line of their cross-country bike tour at Dalhousie’s Studley quad on Saturday.
The three Montreal students, all 19 years old, had just completed a formidable task: over the past three months, they had cycled 7,500 km from Vancouver to Halifax to raise awareness and funds for Zero Force, a subset of the Child Soldiers Initiative.
On this last leg of their journey, the team rode 100 km from Truro with an HRM police escort and local cyclists form Hub Cyclists. Tanned and smiling, the young men thanked supporters and greeted friends and family with hugs.
Zero Force began in 2010 as the public mobilization campaign of the Child Soldiers Initiative, founded by Lt-General Roméo Dallaire (retired). It believes that ordinary people—particularly young people—can affect real change in putting an end to the recruitment of child soldiers. Since January 2010, the Child Soldiers Initiative has been located at Dalhousie’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.
The United Nations estimates that there are currently 250,000 child soldiers around the world, most between the ages of 14 and 18 but some as young as seven. In addition to fighting, the boys and girls may be used in a number of ways to support warfare, including as labourers, spies or for sexual purposes.
The Zero Force Cycling Team shared their experiences at a welcome event co-organized by Political Science PhD student Carla Suarez and the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.
Coast to coast
Co-founders Drew Steeves and Mitch Torrens first learned about child soldiers after attending a lecture by Gen. Dallaire. Joined by John Abbott College classmate Laurent Gazaille, they founded the Zero Force Cycling Team, with a goal of educating peers and raising $150,000 to help fund programming in countries such as Haiti, Colombia and Jamaica.
“We always knew we could do it,” said Mr. Gazaille at Saturday’s event. “But the rockies…they were bigger [and more difficult] than we thought.” In the prairies, where flat terrain left them exposed to the wind and elements, they learned to cycle as a team. All along the way, they learned about the generosity of the Canadian people, the closeness of their cause, and themselves.
“Starting out, I had no idea of the scope [of child soldiers around the world] or how many people were affected or how close it is to home,” said Mr. Torrens, speaking of former soldiers who have now made a home in Canada. “These kids are not much younger than us.”
A testament to what youth can do
Linda Liebenberg, co-director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie, said the ZFCT is a “testament to what youth can do if given the appropriate resources and opportunities.”
Dr. Liebenburg MCed the event, which also featured a welcome from Halifax City Councillor Dawn Sloane; an overview of Zero Force by Shelly Whitman, Child Soldiers Initiative; a discussion of the Red Cross’ involvement in the CSI by Catherine Baillie Abidi; a South African/Canadian youth hip hop performance by Egan John; and dancing and music by the Maritime Centre for African Dance. Dr. Whitman also expressed thanks to the RCMP, Halifax Regional Police and the event’s organizing committee for their support.
The team will host a fundraiser in Halifax this week: a party on Thursday, August 18 at Tribeca (1588 Granville Street). Beginning at 9:00 p.m., there will be music from local artists Michael Redden and Parade Square; a spoken word performance by El Jones; and a photo exhibition by the Canadian Red Cross. Cost to attend is $7, but $5 for students.
The Zero Force Cycling Team completed their journey by dipping their bikes in the Atlantic this weekend, but say this isn’t the end. “We want to keep on going,” said Mr. Torrens. “We want to inspire youth to do the same thing. That’s our mission – a call out to youth to get involved in this issue or any issue that touches their hearts.”
As of press time, the team had raised close to $30,000 of their $150,000 goal. To make a donation to this cause—or to read up about the team—visit www.cyclingwithzeroforce.com. Those requiring charitable tax receipts may donate to the cause through Dalhousie’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.
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